This is a paper I wrote about Studs Terkel's book Hard Times for a history class.Node your homework.


Studs Terkel is a peculiar kind of historian. He's become a sort of everyman for American history by emphasizing the personal perspectives of people who have lived through macro level historical events. Terkel usually confines himself to commenting through interview questions and allows his subjects to tell their own side of the story. Although this book was written in the 1970's, Terkel still remains active in literary circles and on the radio.

The title of this book also includes "oral history" in its wording which is a very accurate piece of terminology to use in describing Terkel's work. The accounts he captures are first person, subjective, and, at times, very opinionated. The author does little to dissuade his subjects from this personal perspective. There are few harsh cross-examinations in this book. No perspective is too conservative or radical for consideration. His expertise lies in allowing his interview subjects to extract their histories with their unique experiential perspectives and knowing that asking a seemingly innocuous question at the right time may serve to expose a brilliant kernel of the truth.

In his introduction to the book (subtitled "A Personal Memoir"), Terkel admits that "Hard Times" doesn't aim to be an absolutely accurate and concrete account of the Great Depression. That goal is entirely out of his scope. He aspires to put a human face on an epoch in the history of the United States. It was a time when the proverbial bottom nearly dropped out of the American breadbasket and most events of this nature are also tremendously complicated. Analytically tracking all of the causes and consequences of the Depression is not Terkel's goal. He seeks the essential human experience of what it was like to live through the Great Depression whether you were a member of Roosevelt's Brain Trust, a ruthless financier, or a share cropper in the deep South.

Terkel relates his own memories in a similar fashion. He remembers a "blur of images" instead of a cohesive, linear series of events. His memory of the Depression is measured by the success of his father's hotel. Instead of sweeping examples of the crash Terkel sees the change take place in baby steps with the once packed Grand Hotel becoming progressively more vacant and its once opulent clientele becoming more average. He watched the once confident and successful people surrounding him become more and more unsure and sober. Terkel was also involved in one of the New Deal programs. He worked for the Illinois Writers' Project creating radio scripts based on museum exhibits and cultural events.

The scope of "Hard Times" is admirably broad. Despite the obvious difficulty involved with attempting to document a period of American life that varied so much from person to person Terkel manages to cover a very wide spectrum of experience.

The book begins with a series of first hand accounts of Coxey's march on Washington. Several of the interviews feature Bonus Marchers who recount the harsh response they received from the government. One of the participants details the hardships he endured just to make the trip to Washington - hopping freight cars and "bumming" food and shelter wherever it could be found. Another account by a former Federal Trade Commissioner recounts watching General MacArthur and then aide Dwight D. Eisenhower calmly surveying the Army bayoneting and tear-gassing the Bonus Marchers.

The next section of the book concentrates on the people who wandered the country during the Depression whether out of necessity or wanderlust. Many people took to the rails in search of rumored employment in out of the way places or just because the monotony of life without work proved to be too much for them. The most interesting of this group of interviews is with the late labor activist Cesar Chavez. Chavez recollects the loss of his family farm and his family's difficult transition into migrant farm work. Among his recollections many are related to the corruption involved with contracting farm labor. The roots of his later labor activism show in the stories he chooses to relate. Chavez also recalls unsuccessful labor strikes and the embarrassing situations caused by them. He mentions one instance where all of the workers walked off a farm after the owner was accused of cheating on the piece counts. Several weeks later, necessity forced his family to return to work for the same farmer at a much lower wage.

Another chapter is devoted to the men behind the Roosevelt Brain Trust. Many of them are well into their later years and it is interesting to note that most talk about the issues of that time with vehemence despite the thirty-year distance from the subject. For most it seems that their strongly held opinions about the right and wrong ideas of the New Deal have not changed. Surprisingly many of those intimately involved with New Deal programs were not confident about the possible outcomes of their plans. Raymond Moley, one of the original members of the Brain Trust, departed the administration citing Roosevelt's increasing radicalism as his impetus. He left with grave doubts about the ability of government to employ people in the long term.

In his interview, Alf Landon talks about the 1936 presidential election and his opinions of New Deal programs. He speaks very candidly about misinterpreting the results of a Literary Digest poll and choosing his Secretary of State before the final election results were in. Landon also admits that he thinks Roosevelt's leadership saved the country and that his main problem with Roosevelt's platform was the lack of enthusiasm for a gold standard that was a central issue of Landon's campaign.

Scattered throughout the sections are interviews with Black men. They are among the most honest, direct, and sometimes scathing. The consensus among them is that there was no Great Depression for Black people in the United States. They all state that Black people were always poor and didn't suffer the cataclysmic blow to their pride that many other people in the country did. One man uses shifts in diet as an explanation for the hardship of white people. He claims that the situation is different for a white man who is used to bringing home steak and is forced to bring home beans. While the shift in situation is perceived as catastrophic for more privileged people Black people are accustomed to shifts in income and quickly adapt without seeing the change as an indication of their worth as people.

This idea of poverty and need being very relative is close to the essential reasoning for the existence of this book. Terkel recognizes the validity of difference in experience and uses it to make a very important point. Although Americans are accustomed to reading about the Great Depression as a historical macro event there is no universal perspective on the Depression. Terkel's way of presenting this idea transcends the typical. He ignores the textbook methodology of dwelling on the thoughts and deeds of the big names. Granted, these names are not altogether ignored but the focus of the narrative remains on the people who lived through the historical event. The significance of this book in creating a greater understanding of the Great Depression is that it promotes the validity of oral histories within the context of canonical subject matter. Terkel doesn't attempt to refute any of the scholarship on the Great Depression. He attempts to inform it and create a more visceral image of a confusing era of American history. Terkel aims to connect the blank facts and statistics of historical record into something more understandable to those who did not experience the Depression themselves.

Another important component of this book is that it graphically illustrates that history is not a linear process of events. Many of the people who were in charge of repairing the damage caused by the Depression freely admit that they were improvising. The simple fact that the Roosevelt administration was making plans up as they went along is also very illuminating. It refutes the idea that simply having political power transforms humans into heroes capable of fixing every disaster with a flurry of money and a public relations campaign. To clearly see that governing isn't a Machiavellian science is valuable on its own. The conclusion seems to be that there is no conclusion. History is a messy topic. There are no neat conclusions and one size fits all answers. American life is not a universal experience for all of its participants. Studs Terkel recognizes this and tries to answer some of our questions by essentially further complicating the process of questioning. In his introduction he refers to his own recollections of the Great Depression as a "blur of memories" without an adherence to particular dates or a linear outline of events. The Great Depression was more than just a single event or set of experiences to Terkel and to the others he interviewed. He rounds up as many different answers to the question as he can and leaves it largely up to the reader to draw conclusions. He forgoes the trappings of a sociological experiment by setting parameters and controlling environments. Terkel finds a niche that should not be so unique in historical writing: what happened to people. He arrives there by the simplest mechanism imaginable - he talks and listens.

Hard Times - novel written by Charles Dickens and serialised in Household Words in 1854. Despite being seen as an "industrial novel", Hard Times defies pigeonholing and is a witty satire of Utilitarianism and wordy critic of the exploitation of mid-Victorian workers.

The Victorian England in which Dickens lived was fraught with massive economic turmoil, as the Industrial Revolution sent shockwaves through the established order. The disparity between the rich and poor, or the middle and working classes, grew even greater as factory owners exploited their employees in order to increase their own profits. Workers were forced to work long hours for low pay in cramped, sooty, loud, and dangerous factories. Because they lacked education and job skills, these workers had few options for improving their terrible living and working conditions.

Though he was far too great a novelist to become a propagandist, Dickens used his art as a lens to focus attention on the plight of the poor and to attempt to awaken the conscience of the reader. Hard Times is just such a novel: set amid the industrial smokestacks and factories of Coketown, the novel uses its characters and stories to expose the massive gulf between rich and poor in the nation and to criticize what Dickens perceived as the unfeeling self-interest of the middle and upper classes. Indeed, Hard Times suggests that nineteenth-century England itself is turning into a factory machine. Dickens hammers home his point with vicious, often hilarious satire and sentimental melodrama. It is also not a difficult book: Dickens wanted all his readers to catch his point exactly, and the moral theme of the novel is very explicitly articulated time and again.


Introduction courtesy of SparkNotes, http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/hardtimes/context.html, 2003.


A short essay on Charles Dickens' presentation of Mr. Gradgrind and his significance as a character in chapter two of Hard Times


Dickens' masterful use of language and effectively unorthodox syntax and writing idiolect allows him to make particularly compelling judgements upon society as a whole. The reasoned arguments he puts forward are all the more persuasive due to his ingenious use of highly original extended metaphors and a precisely sardonic tone. Dickens is able to allow the characters' hyperbolic sentiments to be interposed through the narrator and, by creating lurid caricatures of Victorian people, Dickens highlights the wrongs he perceives daily. The exaggeration seems excessive, but is made so effective by its witty realism, which his serial readers could relate to with each chapter published. Dickens is a maestro with words and puts forward many cogent arguments in Hard Times - with his creative descriptions of Mr. Gradgrind, he skilfully uses many inventive devices to give emphasis to his beliefs. Humorous irony mixed with flawless proportions of truth and subtle satire mean that Dickens can proficiently make suggestions and voice considered opinions upon society with great persuasion.

Gradgrind is a character involved in the central plot throughout Sowing. Once he has been introduced, the reader gets a clear idea of his personality from his evocative name. The word Gradgrind conjures up vivid images of laboriously hard work and harshly angled conservative toughness. He is repeatedly described by precisely measured geometry and addressed a pupil by "squarely pointing with his square forefinger". Gradgrind is a man who has no abstract form and absolutely no room for deviation - he is simply eminently square. Mr. Gradgrind constantly rants with vitriol about man's need for solid hard fact - he, a self-proclaimed "man of realities", only accepts pedantic scientific definitions and, conversely, adulates cold, hard, factual knowledge. He sees "fact, fact, fact" as the sole constituent of the real world and, as such, considers it his duty to attempt to teach the children in his care as many facts as possible and to "force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact". Consequently, Gradgrind considers the pursuit of proven information and the mass production of impersonal fact-retainers to be all-important and Dickens cleverly illustrates this by referring to the children as "pitchers" yearning to be filled full of precious facts. Any trace of frivolity is to be deracinated and suppressed - lots of war imagery is used to show how Gradgrind envisages blasting away their imaginations with a "cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts". This highlights the militaristic oppressive nature of his beliefs and teaching methods and, by referring to his pupil by numbers - "girl number twenty" - Gradgrind further dehumanises them by culling any remaining individual identity.

Gradgrind is very self-important; he superciliously raves about being "a man of realities" and "a man of fact". Even though other, inferior, Gradgrinds do not have such a firm grasp of sense, Mr. Thomas Gradgrind is a man of nothing other than pure fact. He even has a pre-designed speech he uses to introduce himself amongst new company as such a solid, upstanding man. This self-importance is again made apparent when Gradgrind asks Sissy Jupe what her father's profession is. Not only is this typical of the Victorian era where all that matters is the status and class of one's senior male relation, but Gradgrind curtly silences her by saying "We don't want to know anything about that, here". In saying this, he assumes absolute authority as though his knowledge precludes anyone else from having a valid opinion - despite being the only one disinterested by the jocular nature of the circus, "we" refers to the whole class, and he rashly makes the assumption that no one can successful argue against his infallible logic. In response to Sissy's refreshing naïveté and sweet, untarnished innocence in curtseying and proclaiming that her father does not call her Cecelia, Gradgrind utters with supreme, stifling arrogance "he has no business to do it". Again, this merely shows how close-minded his choking thoughts are, how he harmfully imposes his beliefs upon everyone and how far his obsession with extirpating all notions of fancy extends. The overbearing hubris is taken even further as Gradgrind equates his ideas about life to very subjective conceptions - "This is fact. This is taste." He leaves no room for alternative opinions, just blankly states that he is right. No one even dares to disagree.

Gradgrind meticulously sets out the seating in his classroom and his obsession with science is reflected by the desk arrangement being described in exact mathematical terms with the "boys and girls sat on the face of the inclined plane". He is associated with lots of dark, dull imagery that accurately reflects his personality. The classroom is murky, bare and so bleached of colour that bright-eyed new girl Sissy brilliantly stands out "irradiated" by a lustrous beam of light like an angel among men. One of the emotionally depleted boys who has clearly been under Gradgrind's mentally exhausting influence for some time, is an insipid and ghostly shadow or a child no longer possessing any imagination or creativeness - Dickens claims that should he be cut, "he would bleed white". He has been reduced to a machine designed to produce clipped, precise definitions and, in diametric contrast to Sissy's constant deep blushing, seems drained after answering a question.

Gradgrind has a number of lackeys whose ideologies seamlessly overlap with his own. He approbates the idea that nothing should be allowed that does not reflect reality. He has such a twisted view of reality that the very notion of "representations" of quadrupeds on walls or "walking upon flowers in carpets" almost physically disgusts him. His monomaniacal fixation with reality and the vigorous forced suppression of fancy extends to being against wallpaper patterned with horses as, in real life, horses never walk up and down walls. Dickens' hyperbole describing this hang-up becomes almost excessive as Gradgrind effectively calls for an exorcism of fancy in order to comply with his idée fixe.

One of Gradgrind's colleagues appeals to him so much because of his inexhaustible knowledge. He proclaims to know "all about all ... all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two-hundred-and-thirty points of the compass". Gradgrind and his fellow schoolmasters are completely blinded by fact to the other useful aspects of education. They see their job as efficiently churning out knowledgeable children on a conveyor belt at the greatest rate possible whilst ignoring the possibility that by nurturing their individual pupils they might well grow up a lot stronger, well-rounded and better off. The allusions to mass-production in industrial factories is Dickens' way of sniping at the Victorian system of mass-labour churning out soulless products and sapping away workers' empty lives. In the penultimate paragraph, Dickens' tone changes and the author speaks candidly, for the first time free from being affected and encroached upon by Gradgrind's voiced opinions. He pithily utters with great wisdom that, "if he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!"

As he ends the chapter, Dickens makes yet another shrewd comment on one of Gradgrind's fellow contemporaries. In this chapter, Dickens' skilfully demonstrates Gradgrind's detestable personality. He allows Gradgrind's sentiments to leak through his narration so that the reader can appreciate the extent of his arrogance and the irony involved. By the dramatic use of hyperbole and extended imagery, the novel's reader gets an idea of the type of Victorian personality Gradgrind represents and the patent absurdity of all his starchy ideas. In Dickens' vivid portrayal of a classroom scene, one can clearly see the very real detrimental effect dated mindsets similar Gradgrind's have on numerous lives. His wish for fact to force out and forever obliterate fancy is extreme but very real, and the exaggerated stereotype of square Gradgrind helps to show all that is wrong with Victorians like him. Finally, on the chapter's final page, Dickens' true sentiments are voiced to summarise and confirm to the reader how dangerous Gradgrind's obsession and oppressive hubris is. His haughty attitude is subtly mocked throughout the chapter, as Dickens is such a cunning wordsmith. The names of characters manifestly mirror their personalities, allowing the reader to easily prejudge them and immediately understand them. Even with the prominent title of the chapter, Dickens is attempting to highlight the point of presenting Gradgrind as he does: "Murdering the Innocents". This concisely shows why Gradgrind so deserves to be portrayed as he is - he is literally systematically murdering the spirits of a whole generation of beautifully innocent children by wearing them down and contaminating them with nothing but fact.

All quotations of the text are courtesy of Charles Dickens's Hard Times. This work has been confirmed to be in the public domain free from copyright, and is availible on Project Gutenberg at http://www.ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext97/hardt10.txt

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CST Approved.

There is a Middle Road: Disharmony and Discord Disturbing the Equilibrium in Dickens’s Hard Times

“...for you reap whatever you sow” (Galatians 6.7, NRSV).

This verse epitomizes the imminent phenomenon pending at all times: consequence. In his novel, Hard Times, Charles Dickens champions an idealistic middle road, an equilibrium amidst a tumultuous sea of human desire and misunderstanding. While he is sympathetic to the plight of the working man in the face of dehumanizing industry, Dickens still chooses to depict their efforts toward union mobilization in a poor light. This apparent contradiction is not a contradiction at all, but a somewhat romantic appeal to reason, consistent with the characterization of other views and values presented in Hard Times.

Certainly, the most distinguishing characteristic of Gradgrind’s school is that it be grounded entirely in facts, for, “Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else” (9). This emphasis on fact over fancy carries into Thomas and Louisa’s upbringing as well. In contrast to Sleary’s declaration, that “People must be amuthed,” Gradgrind effectively renders their childhood void of amusement, imagination and emotion. The drawn out monotony of their day to day existence, all work and no play, has an ill effect on their mental fortitude. Dickens titles Book the First of Hard Times Sowing, and it is within this section that the seeds of imbalance that are at the root of Thomas, Louisa and all the character’s problems, are sown. In Book the Second, Reaping, the consequences of these seeds come to full light. Thomas revolts against his father’s philosophy of hard fact, “I’ll recompense myself for the way in which I have been brought up” (55). What results is simply an exercise in hedonism, leading to his eventual debt, and consequently, the bank robbery. On the other hand, Louisa is left numb from her lack of experience, she does not know how to feel. She does not understand love or her own emotions, thus she becomes ensnared in a hopeless marriage to Bounderby, and later, is easily manipulated by Harthouse. Dickens is suggesting that the way to a happier existence is through the healthy reconciliation of fact and fancy, in a system of mutual accord.

Furthermore, this view is expounded in the threads of Stephen Blackpool’s narrative. He is a hand working himself to death for nothing but “somebody else’s thorns” (66). Blackpool does not fall in line with the other workers, listening to Slackbridge’s maligned language. Rather he recognizes that labor organization will only further deteriorate the situation between the Men and Masters when he says of the union regulations, “I doubt their doin’ yo onny good. Licker they’ll do you hurt” (140). Yet, when Bounderby calls on Blackpool to serve as a spy, to report what he has seen and heard of the worker’s union, he refuses and loses his job. Stephen is left ostracized from his fellow workers, and without employment, for what he and the narrator see as a moral act. What this says of integrity, is that it is not fully compatible with the industrial climate infecting the British social ladder. Dickens believes that the union movement, like the push for rapid industrialization (without regard to the workers), can act as a destabilizing force, only further amplifying the social disharmony and incongruity present in society.

In Hard Times, Dickens composes a story that brings to light his qualms with the industrial mechanization of the individual, while at the same time retaining a powerful character driven dialogue. He explores the intricate and often confounded capacity of the human spirit to create ripples in the fabric of society, sending discordant waves of both “melancholy madness” and “imaginative grace” in all directions (27,287). Just as all actions have reactions, all individuals harvest the consequences of the seeds that they sow in their own lives and the lives of others. In short, Hard Times is a plea for balance and mutual respect.

All in text quotes taken from the 2003 Penguin Classics publishing of Hard Times. Numbers in parentheses refer to particular page numbers. Scripture taken from the New Revised Standard Version of The Holy Bible.

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